Four Successful Novelists:
Their Struggles and Sage Advice
How do they do it? In the following article, courtesy of Children’s Book Insider, award-winning authors Bobbie Pyron, Dandi Daley Mackall, Jay Asher, and Jerry Spinelli share intimate thoughts about writing.
Below, preceding the article, you’ll find a bonus section—the authors’ prompts for you to apply to your own writing. Below, each author is cited with his or her book featured in the article. Enjoy!
I imagine in detail what my character would, at any point, have in his or her pockets. For instance, I always have a chapstick in my pocket (because I live in a very dry climate), but I’m also just as likely to have little dog treats in my pockets too. And lists and notes to myself. It’s these small particulars that make a character rich and to feel “real” to the reader. Not that you have to actually say in the book what’s in the character’s pockets, but you know.
Editor’s note: Also imagine what might be in the character’s drawer, closet, purse, satchel, etc.!
[It’s critical to have] something at stake in each scene, even if it’s small. I try to start every chapter, every scene with: “Will she/he, or won’t she/he?” I don’t write that, but I think it. Will Hope find the photos she needs? Will she convince the lawyer to let Jeremy plead “Not Guilty”? Each question needs a concrete answer that will lead toward that wonderful ending—but keep the reader reading in the meantime.
Another exercise: I love teaching and writing about character. The following exercise is my favorite way to get to the center of a major or minor character—even a “throwaway” character such as a bagger at the check-out, or the toll-booth woman.
I start by thinking, “[Character name] is the kind of person who ___________.” Then I fill in the blank with an action that characterizes and helps the reader identify the type of person I’m talking about. For example, if I say “Mrs. Jenkins is the kind of teacher who makes you wish you’d never raised your hand,” you will probably know the kind of teacher I’m talking about. You’ll already know a lot about that character, and I’ve only used a few words.
Usually, though, rather than telling the reader what kind of a person my character is, I like to show my character in a scene in the novel. In The Silence of Murder, Hope is genuine, authentic; she doesn’t pretend to be someone she’s not. I “played” with this exercise, filling in the blank in a variety of ways to try to get a handle on my character.
For example: “Hope is the kind of girl who kisses with her eyes open, then says thank you.” But instead of using that line, I show Hope kissing Chase, keeping her eyes open because she doesn’t want to miss a second of this experience. Then she thanks Chase and asks him if couples usually talk after kissing like that, or if they just keep on kissing.
I love this character exercise because it’s so easy—fun even—and yet it can help me nail a single character trait that runs deep, a trait readers will recognize in themselves, or in someone else.
Before I can really start writing, even if I don’t fully know the characters, setting, or plot, I need to know the tone I’d like to set.
EXPLORING A STORY IDEA
I begin by getting to know my idea. The story. I take it to lunch, my treat. I ask questions. “What makes you tick?” “How would you like me to treat you?” “What point of view?” I do this because it is for the story that I write. If the story is happy with my work, the readers will come.
The following article is courtesy of Children’s Book Insider, The Newsletter for Children’s Writers (CBI), copyright June 2012. Prohibited to copy or reproduce more than brief quotes without written permission from Children’s Book Insider. CBI publisher Laura Backes was former faculty at the Pacific Coast Children’s Writers Workshop. See additional outstanding articles and resources on the CBI Clubhouse website.